A couple of weeks ago I attended a one day retreat with some friends. This was led by Fr. Philip Scott who founded the Family of Jesus community. Above is a link to a talk by Fr. Philip that covers some of the material he mentioned that day. It was extremely helpful to me and, since I took lots of notes, I have included my summary here. Of course this is just a sketch of what he actually said, but retreat DVDs are available HERE.
Father Philip's retreat focused on father/mother wounds from growing up under less than ideal family circumstances. Since my father was totally absent growing up, Father Philip and many other spiritual leaders and psychologists would say that certain developmental issues were virtually inevitable. Unfortunately, a mother cannot impart a father's blessing and a father cannot impart a mother's blessing. The complete lack of a father/mother's blessing also weakens the blessing of the remaining parent who is now almost inevitably emotionally wounded and physically/mentally taxed by single parenthood. Also, Fr. Philip says there is something special about the biological connection between father/mother and child. Other male and female role models can certainly have a tremendously positive impact on a child's development, but cannot completely protect the child from suffering the lack of the biological father/mother's blessing. This is not so hard for me to believe, considering that in so many cases, even the most loving and understanding adoptive parents can't relieve their children of the desire to be known and loved by their biological parents.
The mother's blessing has the greatest impact on our social interactions, i.e. nurturing. The father's blessing is most important for stability, courage, self confidence (i.e. protecting and providing).
The father/mother wound comes from an absence of the father/mother's blessing in the child's life. With the blessing, the heart of the child knows that it is loved. Without the blessing, the child is faced with two primary challenges:
1.) The one who has not received the blessing feels that he has to be strong.
This often manifests in stoicism, a coldness and inability/fear of showing emotions externally, suppression of emotions, independence and insistence that I can take care of everything on my own and don't need help from anybody else. The problem is that we are weak. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to discover that we are not actually in control of external situations or even in control of our own feelings. The person who has not received the blessing often gets angry and/or discouraged easily and feels intense shame when things go wrong. "When they sin, the world falls apart. They may confess, but continue to feel guilty."
2.) The one who has not received the blessing does not have a clear sense of his own identity.
The person who has not received the blessing creates his own identity. He has to invent who he is because he does not know who he is. This can manifest itself in eccentricity, rebelliousness, lack of direction or motivation, depression and feeling that life has no meaning, a lack of understanding of one's mission and purpose in life.
One who has not received the blessing struggles intensely with loneliness. He compares himself with others, feels frustrated, powerless and lacks peace. He has a lot of noise inside his head, negative self-talk.
According to Fr. Philip, there are 5 necessary components of the father/mother blessing.
This is especially important for children because they don't understand concepts. Children touch everything, put everything they can into their mouths!, and need to feel things to know that they are real. Touch that conveys love is necessary for the child to feel loved. A child that does not receive this aspect of the blessing continues to need that love as he/she transitions into adolescence and adulthood and usually seeks it in the wrong places, through sexual experiences.
Love also needs to be expressed in words. Time and again I would hear from the men in prison something along the lines of: "I don't care if my father is still an alcoholic and making all the wrong decisions. I just wish that at least once in his life he would tell me that he loves me." Words have power and the blessing builds up the child. Words spoken in anger kill love. A person who has not received this component of the blessing, or has experienced the father/mother's curse, is often hypersensitive. Some families don't share their feelings at all. The parents' inability to express feelings in a healthy way is transmitted to the children who feel that they are not free to express feelings. There are often a lot of secrets in families that do not communicate openly.
Parents need to show their love by spending time with children. Not only should the parents be around, but time should be spent entering into the child's world and communicating at the child's level. It is important to make the effort to really know the child, that he may feel understood. Again, "in a healthy family you are allowed to have feelings and to share them".
4.) If my mom and dad really knew me, they could help me discover my calling.
An important way in which the father/mother blesses the child is to help him discover his unique identity as a child of God and the path to which the Lord is calling him. Without this the child has a poor sense of identity and feels he is facing life alone.
The father/mother loves the child even when disciplining him when these occasions of stress are treated as teaching moments. The parents again enter the child's world to understand why he is behaving in such a way and to help the child feel loved, accepted, and understood.
Men who have not received the blessing typically try to impress (e.g. blaring radios from jacked up cars with monster truck tires). Women who have not received the blessing tend to dress immodestly in order to attract attention.
With God there is a way out!
It is necessary to realize we are weak. God will send us plenty of opportunities to acknowledge this. In order to avoid despair upon realizing that we are weak, we must call upon God to be our strength. We must leave every problem in His hands to resolve as He sees fit. (This is the basis of the 12 step programs.)
It is necessary to feel our feelings! And therefore it is necessary to go back and feel the feelings that we did not allow ourselves to feel before (suppressed emotions). This time we go back knowing that Jesus is there with us. As we progress along this path of healing, God will begin to help us see the reality of our situation, so that we can distinguish our true selves from the selves we have invented. We will be adopted into the perfect family of the Holy Trinity where we know without a doubt that we are completely understood and completely loved.
Note that feelings in and of themselves are a natural human response to the circumstances of our lives and therefore are not sinful. So we should not try to ignore and control our emotions but rather allow ourselves to recognize them. It is the way that we behave in response to our emotions that can be sinful. Attempting to smother our feelings often can make them grow stronger. For example, trying to smother anger can increase it and cause our angry outburst to become even more violent. Instead, we must immediately acknowledge the feeling of anger and that we are blinded by it (strong emotions impair our ability to reason), call upon God to handle the situation, and enter into prayer. Fr. Philip recommended praying the name of Jesus on the rosary beads.
I plan to watch the DVDs and look forward to learning more about the healing process. We got a detailed overview of the problem but kind of ran out of time toward the end of the day. I got the message that we need to accept the fact that we are weak and depend on God instead. And we need healing of memories and to stop smothering our emotions. That's enough to work on for now!
The day after the retreat I was at Mass and listening to our priest's homily. He said that in our society we are taught jealousy from a very young age and that our materialistic society with all of our advertising trains us to covet our neighbors' goods. If our neighbors have a nicer house or car or phone, we wish we had something better. We feel driven to succeed and have the highest paying job so that we can have the most and the best goods, everything that money can provide. We are also taught to be ambitious. This is a less obvious danger because it is a good thing to be motivated. However, we're taught that we need to accomplish more and more things, bigger and better than ever before. In school we should be getting the highest grades, in our workplace we should be making the highest salary. We are very accomplishment driven. At high school and college graduations, speakers exhort us to go out and save the world and make our mark on history. Many of us are now SO exhausted by trying to move mountains. I feel this also happens in the spiritual life. At the very beginning of the spiritual life, when turning away from the world, exhortations to bigger and better acts of charity can be useful to get us off of our butts and into ministry opportunities. However, eventually these same exhortations can make a person spiritually ambitious in a way that is exhausting. God needs to teach us that even in our spiritual lives we are weak. Like Sister Nirmala said and Fr. Philip was explaining, the proper spiritual perspective is that of littleness and spiritual childhood, total weakness and dependence on God, recognizing that He is the one who saves the world and anything that I can do is the tiniest drop in the bucket.